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First test on Triumph Bonneville America

Published: 09 September 2001

Updated: 19 November 2014

AMERICA is the spiritual home of the cruiser, and the scene of one of the most important new launches in Triumph’s recent history, the aptly named Bonneville America.

Make no mistake, this machine was not built with the British in mind, but to crack the massive American motorcycle market, which is why it is officially the longest and lowest Triumph to roll off a production line since the firm was born in 1902. And that’s ideal for long, straight highways rather than England’s green and pleasant lanes.

If it taps into the psyche of American motorcyclists it will be a major boost for Triumph who wants a slice of a market where 418,000 bikes were sold last year, a colossal 54 per cent of which were cruisers.

Initially Triumph isn’t being greedy. " We will sell 2500 Bonneville Americas here next year, " says Mike Vaughn, the CEO of Triumph USA.

Triumph would genuinely be delighted to sell as many as 250 in Britain.

" I think there are a lot of Harley riders who will make the switch to the Triumph in America, " continues Vaughn. " There’s a lot of anti-Japanese feeling but at the moment they don’t have any other real choice. "

And at first glance the Bonneville America is a bike that would appeal to any red-blooded Harley fanatic. In fact the way it looks is the best thing about it.

Design of the bike started in October 1998. A staggering 120 versions were drawn and shown to focus groups, before it was whittled down to 15. Finally it was honed into the bike we see today: A fine looking motorcycle which is definitely better in the flesh than pictures.

The synthesis of bold cruiser styling, like the classic wide front forks, pullback handlebars, forward set foot pegs and slash cut exhaust pipes, works beautifully with Triumph trade marks such as the parallel twin motor, two tone tank and old-look tank badge.

The styling is finished off with the warning lights in a chromed console set into the fuel tank, a big white faced speedo and chrome headlamp all of which all do the job they were designed for well. Another nice touch is the pillion footrest hangers that have been designed to look like the toolbox panniers of older models.

Swing your leg over the low, wide seat and slip into the riding position and you know straight away that you are on a cruiser. You feel like you are sitting in the bike, and with your arms spread wide and feet thrust forward the ergonomics are both comfortable and useable.

But it is when you flick the start switch you suffer the only real disappointment. Somehow the spirited twin cylinder engine that was the hooligan motor of choice in the ‘60s has been sanitised and sedated to such an extent (not least of all by emission and noise regulations) that today it is a poor relation compared to the original.

The current air-cooled motor is now 790cc and despite the twin overhead cams and four valves per cylinder and a revised firing order from the standard 360 degrees to 270 it is a bit lame.

Triumph are proud of the noise it makes but with its oh-so-PC pipes the truth is it actually phut-phuts like a ditch pump. The first thing most owners will do is ditch the OE pipes for after-market versions (which, coincidentally, Triumph offers along with a wide range of other accessories).

To try and give the motor that suitably long-legged cruiser feel Triumph have also modified the cams, added twin balancer shafts to complement the revised firing order and made the fifth and final gear taller. All that leaves you with a maximum power output of 61bhp at 7400rpm and a peak torque figure of 44ftlb at 3500rpm.

It also leaves you with a somewhat breathless and vibey motor that doesn’t go far enough to match the spirit of the bike’s stylish and purposeful looks. It’s an engine that lacks soul, has no real grunt and crucially for a cruiser never really feels like it is chugging you forward with big fat lumps torquey power.

It will sit comfortably at 60mph (that’s fast in America!) and is good for 100mph if you have a rush of blood to the head and actually want to go that fast in that riding position. But if you want to be inspired by the engine…

Many will argue that a cruiser is not about performance, which is true, but it is about attitude, and the attitude of this engine is far too laid back for its own good.

Of course on the right kind of road such things soon become incidental and as I swooped along the sun scorched roads of deepest Georgia, lined with lush, almost tropical trees and vegetation it was easy to enjoy this bike.

With temperature and humidity both in the nineties, the best way to fight off the cloying heat was to ride and ride for miles and before long you lose yourself in another world, the world you can only reach on a bike. The only thing that is disturbing is this looks a little too much like Deliverance country…

The steel chassis, which bears no resemblance to that on the Bonnie launched last year, does its job well. Again cruisers are not designed to go round corners athletically - " Americans are not interested in taking corners fast, " says Vaughn. But for a cruiser it handles well.

On the straights it is stable and comfortable, through sweepers it is assured and, despite the 1655mm wheelbase, 33.3-degree fork angle and 497lb dry weight, it is easy to manage at slow speed. Plus, the combination of the 41mm fork and twin shocks give you a comfortable ride and with a range of up to 150 miles per tank, that’s important.

With a single disc at the front and back the brakes are adequate, but the standard adjustment of the front brake is suspect. The brake is a tad too weak which means you have give it good squeeze, but because it comes back virtually to the bar, two fingered braking is not possible without snagging your other fingers.

As Triumph rightly identify, Mr Cruiser likes to personalise his bike more than most, and while the bike only comes in two colours (red or black) there are a wide range of accessories available, plus some custom paint options.

As well as a silver and green version and a British racing green version the most outlandish features a Union Jack design on the tank and front mudguard. Other extras include seat, screen, luggage, and exhaust and chrome options.

On the first bikes that are produced the lower fork yoke will feature a chrome cover, that’s because the early steel version which was rushed out to get the bike into production even Triumph agree is a bit nasty. Later models will feature a new ally yoke.

Visually this bike is a winner, in terms of performance it will do. It’s certainly no better or worse than the many Japanese cruisers on the market today, but what it has which makes it stand out is a really credible styling job and the Triumph badge on the tank.

In the UK it will cost you about £6500 (otr).

More pictures and full specs in MCN on September 19, 2001

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